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The Third Circle of Parity, or, This is Not Your Cousin's NFL

The blog has offered a fabulous view of fandom the last couple of weeks, as this sector of Cowboys Nation has struggled to come to grips with the team's 2-2 start and stuttering climb to 3-2.  Some people want the OC's red head on an even redder platter.  Others want the head coach to proceed him out the door, NOW if possible!  Others want a two-fer. 

The head coaching speculation has begun, with the requisite appeals to authority.  "I've seen the Cowboys for 78.89 thousands years," we'll invariably hear, "and there's no way this team is doing anything."  (Why does it sound like Bill Cosby on acid when you speak that sentence out loud?)

Maybe they're right.  But nobody really knows.  Even if you've seen 50 years of pro football, the first 40 or so are meaningless to understanding the quality of today's NFL.  We've entered the third phase of parity, on our glide path to a time when every team will finish 8-8 and we will need computers, and maybe pollsters, to sort out the postseason field.

That phase began in 2005.  I'm not exactly sure why it began that year but there are three phases to the devolution process unleashed by the salary cap system's adoption in 1994.

Phase I was the rule of the existing powers.  Dallas assumed the NFL throne in '92 and duked it out with San Francisco for conference supremacy, which at that time meant league supremacy.  They staged a free agency duel over Deion Sanders, who helped each win the first two cap era titles.  But the cap chicanery tied their hands, and two organizations just below them in '94 and '95, the Packers and the Broncos, won the next three titles.

Phase II begins around 1999, and comprises what I'll call the Dead Money Era.  Lots of teams got themselves deep into debt and saw bad contracts eat up large percentages of their fixed yearly budgets. This brought about a rapid reshuffling of team authority.  The Rams came from nowhere to win the '99 season behind Kurt Warner.  In the resettlement period we saw the '00 Ravens and the '02 Bucs win with dominant defenses and the pedestrian QBs Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson.

The period really began to define itself in 2001, when Bill Belichick ran the first of his three Super Bowl campaigns behind Tom Brady.  As David Halberstam noted in The Education of a Coach, Belichick and his GM partner Scott Pioli began assembling a roster of interchangeable parts; New England had the rare superstar like Brady, but rather than building around a cluster of stars, as the '90s Cowboys and 'Niners did, the Pats looked for good players who could play multiple roles or former superstars at the ends of their careers -- Junior Seau, Rodney Harrison -- who could play smart football for a short-term, medium-sized contract.  Belichick felt this template gave him a better overall talent level for the buck. 

The results speak for themselves.  While big revenue teams struggled to purge their spread sheets, New England and the Eagles, the NFC team most closely following the Pats model (they rarely offer a big contract to a player over 30) briefly took over the league.

Phase III started just around the time the league as a whole learned to balance a checkbook.  Since that time, we're seeing real parity.  I've pointed out the churn we see from year to year, with a third of each years playoff field, on average, having been a loser the year before.

With so many Cowboys fans already short selling the '09 season, I went a bit deeper into the standings, to see how crippling a 2-2 or 3-2 start really is, and how important it is to maintain strength across the sixteen games?

I looked at the decade, and focused on the conference championship combatants, the NFL's Final Four, if you will.  First, how many NFC and AFC Championship Game contestants had strong starts?  I broke down the numbers for the whole decade, then by phases of the Cap Era.:

5-Game Record  Overall   Phase II, '00-'04  Phase III, '05-'08
          5-0      9              6             3
          4-1     12              7             5  
          3-2       9              4             5
          2-3       5              2             3
          1-4       1              1             0


It's important to get off to a good start, but less important than it used to be.  In Phase II, only 35% of the finalists started 3-2, as Dallas has, or worse.   In phase III, that percentage has risen to 50%.

If more teams are reaching the finals with pedestrian starts, this suggests that lower seeds are doing better in the playoffs;  we see a team start 2-2 or 3-2 and then finish 13-3 or 14-2 on occasion, but we don't see it every year.

Playoff Seed   Overall    Phase II, '00-'04    Phase III, '05-'08 
       1st      12             9               3
       2nd       11             7               4
       3rd         5             3               2
        4th         3             1               2
        5th         2             0               2
        6th         3             0               3


Note how open the playoff field has become in phase III.  From 2000 through 2004 the top seeds held sway.  Sixteen of the 20 conference finalists were one or two seeds, a whopping 80%.  If you went three deep, that number bolted to 95%.

Look now at what has happened since the 6th seed Steelers won three road playoff games and the Super Bowl in '05-'06. Only seven of the sixteen finalists, or 44%, have been one or two seeds. 

The game has changed.  Before '05, you needed a very high seed to be considered a legit contender.  Now, the game is simply to get in the playoff field, and finish healthy.  Need a strong December?  Nah. Ask the '06 Colts,who finished 2-3 before running the playoff table.  Or the '07 Giants, who were 4-4 the second half and 2-2 in December before they hit the postseason afterburners.

Last year's field made hash of the old expectations.  In the AFC 6th seed Baltimore gave the 2nd seed Steelers a scare while the nine-win, 4th seed Cardinals hosted the nine-win, 6th seed Eagles. 

This year may see a return to the old 1-2 paradigm but I doubt it.  High seeds have been nothing more than rabbits for the field lately.  The 14-2 Colts went one-and-out in '05;  ditto for the 14-2 Chargers the next year. Dallas fans know what happened to their top seed 13-3 Cowboys in '07. They suffered the same painful fate as the 16-0 Patriots.  The '08 Giants entered December 11-1 and were done five weeks later.

Just. Get. In.

That's the key these days.  Nobody knows this better than Jeff Fisher.  His '02 Titans were the 1-4 starter who played in the AFC title game.  I'm sure he's told his 0-5 squad about them.  If they're smart, they'll heed him.  If he needs to, I'm sure Wade Phillips will mention his '98 Bills to his current Cowboys.  They started 0-3 but made the postseason at 10-6.

Different cap eras, but the same result, one that is becoming more common by the year.  The NFL has become Parityville.  Nobody is done.  Everybody has a chance -- still.

Well, almost everybody.